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Powder, to take a

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective:  My father, mother, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, all of whom are from Wisconsin, swear by “take a powder” as a phrase meaning “to leave a place in a hurry.” Until one of them had mentioned it, I had never heard of it before, which lead me to wonder aloud about its origin.  I thought it was referencing going to the “powder room,” which used to be a popular term for women’s restrooms, but one of my relatives said it was in reference to skiing, and that “taking a powder” originally meant falling down on the slopes, and the puff of snow that happens when you do.  I can understand that meaning (“powder” is still a popular term for snow today), but what does falling down have to do with leaving a place in a hurry?  Please help me solve this mystery. — Tom Davis, Las Vegas, NV.

That’s an interesting theory, and one I’ve never heard before.  I wasn’t aware that there even was skiing in Wisconsin, what with the cows all over the place.  But that “puff of snow” detail lends a definite cachet of authenticity to the story, so I give it three stars on a scale of four.  If your relatives can somehow work a sailing ship into the tale (which I realize might be difficult in Wisconsin), they could probably get half the internet to repeat it for the next ten years.

Unfortunately, that explanation of “to take a powder,” which has been US slang since the early 20th century for “to leave quickly, to run away” or as a command to “scram, get lost,” really doesn’t match the social circle in which the phrase first appeared, which was the underworld of petty criminals and gangsters.  It also doesn’t match the meaning of the phrase, which has always been, as you note, “to leave,” not “to fall down” or “to fail.”

Fortunately, there are some more likely theories (although no definite answer) as to where “to take a powder” came from.  You touched on one in your question — that to tell someone to “take a powder” was a way of saying “go visit the powder room” or “go powder your nose.”  For a male gangster to tell a subordinate to “take a powder” would thus be both dismissive and demeaning, and to “take a powder” (run away) in a stressful situation would be considered “unmanly.”  The “get lost” sense of “take a powder” would also fit nicely with a command meaning “go to the ladies room.”

Arguing against that source, however, is the fact that the phrase first appeared in the form “to take a run-out powder” (“Look at the two birds trying to take a ‘run-out’ powder on the eats,” Washington Post, 1916).  It’s possible that the original “run-out powder” in the phrase was a powerful laxative, also known as a “Mickey Finn,” sometimes surreptitiously administered to unruly bar patrons to get them to leave the premises.  (“Mickey Finn,” probably from the name of a bar owner in early 20th century Chicago, was also used to mean chloral hydrate (“knockout drops”), which rendered the victim unconscious.  In practice, the laxative “Mickey” was usually preferred because the victim left under his own power.)  Thus “to take a run-out powder” was to leave as quickly as if one had been dosed with a fast-acting laxative.

It’s also possible that “powder” in “take a powder” was a more innocent joke.  Many medicines of the times, such as headache remedies, came in the form of  small envelopes of powder to be mixed with water.  With “take a headache powder” and “take a stomach powder” being commonly heard, it would have been witty to say of someone who just left abruptly that he “must have taken a run-out powder,” later shortened to simply “he took a powder.”

10 comments to Powder, to take a

  • That sounds like “take a powder” might have meant “take a trip to the powder room” and “take a run-out powder” might have meant to take an especially hasty trip to the powder room. Gotta go!

  • KarenK

    Wisconsin is bordered by two Great Lakes; I’m sure they could get a sailing ship in there somehow.

  • Dora MacPherson

    I remember watching the old gangster movies with Lisbeth Scott. She would us the Phrase “he took a powder” with a straight face.

    I thought it meant that he was shot and killed.
    My logic was that some guns left a powder residue on the body.
    I was sure on the wrong track.
    So today I was thinking about it so I thought I would look it up.
    The powder room one is funnier yet.

  • Linda B

    You are all overthinking this expression. “Take a runout powder” means to excuse yourself to go to the powder room and then to quickly and secretly leave the building instead. Bette Davis said it to George Brent in the film, “Dark Victory.”

  • Donna

    The term, “Take a powder,” comes from the 1929’s and refers to taking a headache powder. The compressed pill form of an aspirin came later. The idiom developed from suggesting that a person “take a powder” and go lie down morphed into “take a powder and go away” then to just “go away.”

  • Michael Izzo

    I’m going to take a powder

  • merle grall

    I thought maybe it had to do with BC headache powder which is a very old product. It seems when I was young they used the phrase “take a powder” in their advertising so I thought maybe it just entered the language from that. Here’s one to ponder– where did the phrase “cut a chogie” come from? Haven’t heard that in many years.

  • Darren E

    I had to laugh when reading that a “mickey” or “Mickey Finn” was supposedly a ‘powerful laxative’! In the 20’s and 30’s the term Mickey Finn was similar (at least conceptually) with a “roofie”, “knock out drops” or a powerful sedative. The idea of slipping a powerful laxative into someone’s drink isn’t just funny, but also potentially pretty gross. I’ve seem old gangster movies that used a Mickey to overpower or disable a foe.
    The theory that the origin of “take a powder” stems from taking headache powder makes much more sense than the others listed. I have heard ‘take a powder’ in reference to skiing, but it was as part of an advertising campaign for a ski resort during the 80’s.

  • Liz Ing

    I have heard the phrase “taking a powder” used in every one of the scenarios referenced above:
    excusing one’s self to go to the ‘powder room’, being ragged on for falling while skiing, and referencing a defendant who failed to appear in court where ‘took a powder’ is akin to ‘on the lam’ (which goes back to an Old Norse verb that originally meant “to beat” as in “He beat it”). But the ‘Mickey Finn’ theory reminds me of another, more ancient use of the phrase.

    In Medieval China during the Six Dynasties and Tang Dynasty (3rd-10th century),
    Cold-Food Powder, or Five-Mineral Powder, was a powdered (duh) toxic medicine and hallucinogenic drug popularized by the literati and used by some nobility in the belief that it promoted greater mental awareness, and heightened aesthetic perceptivity. It was also believed to have aphrodisiac qualities that increased male sexual energy and enhanced physical stamina and reduced the male refractory period.

    The drug’s ingestion often caused skin sensitivity raised body temperature.

    “Xingsan” (??, lit. “walk powder”), meaning “walking after having taken a powder”, was how they described long walking excursions that were used as a specific therapeutic practice believed to circulate the poisonous inorganic drug, thereby enhancing its psychoactive effects and counteracting its feverish side-effects.

    Today, the use of physical activity to ameliorate the effect of drug or alcohol ingestion is still referred to as “walking it off”.

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